Accents and Identity

I think I have a problem: I’m starting to speak with a Wisconsin accent. I find myself reading books to my son and saying certain words more slowly or several times – not just because he’s a baby and doesn’t know what “octopus” means, but also because I have to check I’m not saying “aack-ctopus”. This subtle drift of the letter “o” is one of those problematic areas for me. You know what I mean if you’ve ever heard someone from Chicago say “Mah-m (Mom)”.

My Wisconsin-native husband and I moved from Southern California to Wisconsin in late 2017. After 18-months, my close friend-of-many-years pointed out (to my horror) how my pronunciations are changing. Before we go any further I can’t stress this enough: I thoroughly enjoy living in Wisconsin and I have absolutely nothing against the Wisconsin accent itself. When I first met my husband, one of the things I liked most about him was the Midwestern way he pronounced “Down”. We’d watch football games and I’d make him say “First Down” over and over and over. This is all evidence, I hope, that I have nothing against the way Midwesterners pronounce things (and yes, of course I acknowledge here that there are maybe a hundred different accent variations across the Midwest). But loving the accent doesn’t mean I love developing the accent, especially if it’s happening without my intent or realization.

This is about my identity. I define myself as a California girl – that’s where I was born and raised. The idea of losing any part of that heritage saddens me.  Before you laugh or roll your eyes, I’m not suggesting this is a huge travesty – it doesn’t have to be a huge deal but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. There are new parents who feel a similar loss of identity when they become parents – that recognition that the way you define yourself as a person has changed can be a bit difficult for some. There are also people who feel a loss of identity when they move to a new country (not just a new state). Their experience would be poorly served by anything I could imagine or assume or say, so I won’t even try to compare that experience to my concern over a few Wisconsin words.

To me, an accent is like an instrument, playing the same notes of a song in its own special voice. There are people who can play multiple instruments just as there are people who can easily slip in and out of a British accent.

Look how easily Harry Potter speaks American:

Being able to turn it off/on is one thing. But what happens when it becomes second nature? Do you remember when Charlie-whats-his-name from Sons of Anarchy couldn’t figure out how to pronounce things because of all his different accents in real life, TV, and movies?

[Evidence: ]

However silly as this seems, I do not want to lose my California native pronunciation. To me that’d be like forgetting how the ocean sounds. After all this reflection and introspection, I think the best course of action is to be more careful with my words – not just how I pronounce things, but also what I say. Sometimes I make awful punny jokes that I would have kept to myself if I had another second to think about it. Sometimes I say “yes” to questions because my instinct is to be helpful, but after another second of thought that “yes” would have turned into “I’d love to, but I can’t”. If being wary of saying “Bey-g (bag)” and “Sn-ough (snow)” and “khar-rrgh (car)” makes me more careful about how I speak and the words I say (out loud), maybe that’s not such a bad thing.


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